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Sandinistas worry regional peace talks may collapse. Contadora process is central to Nicaraguan rulers' bid to reduce likelihood of direct US intervention

Nicaraguan officials dismiss the prospect of renewed United States' funding for ``contra'' rebels as irrelevant to the outcome of their war with the contras. They are more worried about a longer-term threat to Managua's security -- the possible collapse of Central American peace talks.

The Contadora process, as the talks are known, is central to the ruling Sandinistas' bid to reduce the likelihood of direct US intervention in the region. Vice-President Sergio Ram'irez Mercado stressed this Tuesday on his return from a trip to Europe. Washington ``is trying to destroy the Contadora process so as to be left with only military options,'' he charged.

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The talks are clouded anew by divisions among the five Central American neighbors. The three-year-old peace process -- sponsored by Mexico, Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela -- seems closer than ever to failure since the Contadora group presented what it calls the ``final version'' of its peace treaty early this month.

The proposal drew sharp expressions of dissatisfaction from both Costa Rica and El Salvador. ``The guidance of Contadora has disappeared,'' commented Rodolfo Castillo Claramount, El Salvador's vice-president and foreign minister. Although he stopped short of abandoning the Contadora talks altogether, Mr. Castillo Claramount is now understood to be rallying fellow US allies Honduras and Costa Rica toward just making such a move and seeking an alternative peace proposal.

This apparent bid to pull the Contadora rug out from under Nicaragua's feet has run up against one stumbling block -- Guatemala. Guatemalan Foreign Minister Mario Quinonez insisted last week that his government ``will not form any bloc with any country or group of countries designed to lead to the isolation'' of a neighbor.

But this has scarcely calmed Nicaragua's fears that the other three Central American countries, less committed to Guatemala's avowed policy of ``active neutrality,'' may decide to go it alone by drawing up their own treaty.

Hence Managua's insistence in a statement last weekend that the Contadora treaty ``constitutes the only instrument that can and should lead to a rapid and efficient conclusion of the negotiation process.''

This strong hint that the Sandinistas would be willing to sign the Contadora treaty recalls Managua's surprise pledge in September 1984 to sign an earlier version of the pact. That move prompted Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica to quickly find faults in the treaty that demanded further negotiations.

Critics of the treaty, US officials foremost among them, maintain that those faults still have not been recognized. Although their criticism has focused on military aspects of the accord, such as arms limitation and verification, Washington is known to be unhappy about Contadora's political provisions, too. New questions have recently been raised on these issues.

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In particular, the question of what democracy means was raised by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias S'anchez at a Central American presidential summit last month.

President Arias's rejection of the Sandinistas' concept of democracy -- and the support he won from Salvadorean President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte and Honduran President Jos'e Azcona Hoyo for his sharp attacks on Sandinista President Daniel Ortega Saavedra -- served to isolate Nicaragua further from its neighbors.

Doubts about the Sandinistas' democratic course also surfaced among European leaders during Ram'irez's month-long swing through Western Europe, where he sought to bolster international opinion against US policy in Central America.

``A central concern'' voiced, Ram'irez said, ``was the state of emergency'' that the Sandinista government imposed last October, limiting a wide range of civil rights in a move to counter alleged infiltration by the contras. Ram'irez said his hosts had accepted his explanation of the action. He noted ``an enormous difference between the attitude of Western European governments and the attitude of the US government.''

``I did not find a single point of identification'' between European leaders and Washington over Nicaragua, he said. He expressed the hope that the European Community heads of state, meeting in The Hague today and tomorrow, would issue a statement supporting the Contadora peace initiative.

Nicaragua's hopes for garnering broad international opposition to the US's support of the contras are also pinned on a World Court decision, scheduled for June 27, on Nicaraguan charges that the US violated international law by arming, training, and directing the contras, who are trying to overthrow the Sandinista government.

The Court is widely expected to rule in favor of Nicaraguan demands that the US stop supporting the contras. The judgment ``will carry great political weight, not only in Europe, but in other countries of the world,'' Ram'irez predicted.

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